Which four accessories can make or break an outfit?

From socks to watch, belt to tie, these are your wardrobe game-changers

If you want to know what a gentleman’s really like, you don’t listen to what he says or how he acts – you look at the watch on his wrist or the tie around his neck. Life is in the details, and so is a man’s style. 

Accessories are the garnishes that elevate an outfit – the bearnaise sauce on the steak; the mustard in the rarebit. And just as they can lift it up, so too can they bring it down. Here are the accessories that can make or break any outfit, and the rules that govern their use.

Watches obey the one immutable rule of the menswear universe: that understatement is everything. A watch makes an outfit when it whispers of quality rather than shouting about price and prestige. (A £200 day watch from an up and coming young design house could do a great deal more for an outfit, for example, than a £20,000 watch from a well known marque.)

Digital watchfaces should be left to sporting referees or the under 12s (Remember, Buzz Aldrin went to the moon with an analogue Omega Speedmaster on his wrist.) More often than not, a larger watch face will distract from, rather than compliment, your outfit at large. You’ll also do well to avoid gaudy colourways and unusual shapes.

A belt doesn’t just hold your trousers up: it holds an outfit together. You’ve known this since you were five, but I’ll say it anyway: you should always pair your belt colour with your shoes. Brown and brown, black and black. Big, branded buckles are for texan pastors. Wearing a belt with a suit will very often make you look like a prep school PSHCE teacher.

Woven leather belts work best with shorts and summer ensembles. Gaucho belts should be used sparingly and with at least a sprinkling of self awareness. Tan belts are slightly useless and always end up looking grubby. And always buy the most expensive belt you can afford: you’ll have it for many years, and anything cheap or synthetic will prove a crumbling false economy.

Socks should never be an afterthought, but the anchor of your ensemble. In formalwear, plump for socks that match the quality of your suit or trousers – cheap socks below an expensive suit will fell you at the final hurdle. The more conservative gentleman may wish to stick to the classic palette of navy, burgundy, and black, perhaps with a touch of subtle polka dot on Fridays.

But there’s also nothing wrong with reds, lighter blues, forest greens or even mustard yellows, done right and paired responsibly. Don’t be afraid to try out a patterned sock in Prince of Wales check, say, or a houndstooth. But novelty or branded socks are for toddlers and the imminently unemployed.

A tie is a timeless shortcut to elegance and gravitas. But the carousel of potential colour and pattern combinations can undo even the savviest dresser. A white shirt with a block colour tie is a very good workwear staple, and almost any colour looks good against this blank canvas. Likewise, a block colour shirt with a patterned tie – or a subtly patterned shirt with a block colour tie – is hard to get wrong, provided the base colours don’t clash too nauseously.

You can even experiment with a patterned shirt and a patterned tie, providing you vary the patterns and the tie has colour accents that complement the shirt (polka dots on a subtle stripe, for example). A good rule of thumb: if your torso has the appearance of a Magic Eye picture, go back to the drawing board. Never wear a tie that is lighter in hue than your shirt. And never, ever wear a tie that precisely matches the shirt beneath precisely.

Avoid synthetic materials here – they’ll look unnatural in daylight and cheap under a flashbulb. The correct length of a tie is slightly up for grabs, though conventional wisdom dictates the tip should hang just below the top of the trouser line.  Too short a tie will make you look like a startled schoolboy. Never wear a tie that could ever be described as “wacky”. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun – an Hermes tie from almost any era will keep you the right side of whimsical and raffish.

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